Norma Barzman obituary: One of the last survivors of the Hollywood blacklist

She and her husband were among those iced out of Hollywood because of their affiliation with the Communist Party. They moved to Britain and France, where they counted Picasso among their friends

Born: September 15th, 1920

Died: December 17th, 2023

Norma Barzman, a screenwriter who moved to Britain and then to France in the late 1940s rather than be subject to the congressional investigations and professional ostracism that overtook her industry for a decade, has died at the age of 103. She was one of the last surviving victims of the Hollywood blacklist.

Barzman and her husband and fellow screenwriter, Ben Barzman, were among the hundreds of film industry figures – including screenwriters, actors, directors, stagehands and technicians – who found themselves iced out of Hollywood after the second World War because of their unwillingness to discuss their affiliation with the Communist Party or its many associated front groups.

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The Barzmans were both long-time members of the party, having joined in the early 1940s. Although their membership officially lapsed when they left the country, they did not renounce the party until 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

“I’m very proud of my years as a communist,” she told the Associated Press in 2001. “We weren’t Soviet agents, but we were a little silly, idealistic and enthusiastic.”

For a time in the 1930s and 1940s, being a communist, or just sympathetic to the cause, was considered de rigueur among the Hollywood left. But with the onset of the Cold War, attitudes began to shift. Rumours of a government crackdown percolated.

The couple were sitting on their front lawn in July 1947 when a woman in a convertible stopped to talk. After a guarded introduction – her name was Norma, too – she told them that there was a police car at the bottom of the hill, stopping anyone turning on to the street to ask them about the Barzmans. Years later, they would realise that the other Norma had taken the stage name Marilyn Monroe.

That autumn, the House Committee on Un-American Activities called a group of screenwriters, directors and producers to testify about their connections to the Communist Party. Ten of them refused to answer questions, and each was later found in contempt. Though the Barzmans were not among that group, they feared they would be subpoenaed soon.

A few weeks after the hearings,the so-called Waldorf Statement from Hollywood declared that anyone who refused to discuss their relationship to the Communist Party would be blacklisted.

Work for the Barzmans quickly dried up. Finally, in 1949, an opportunity arose for Ben Barzman to work on a film in London. They set sail on the Queen Mary, expecting a six-week trip.

They would not return to the United States until 1965, and they would live abroad until 1976. After several years in London, they moved to Paris; they eventually settled in Provence, France. They became local celebrities of a sort – the family that defied the blacklist – and made friends with the likes of French actor Yves Montand and Pablo Picasso.

Ben Barzman continued to write screenplays, usually for European productions, though often without credit. Norma Barzman got some work, too, but it was harder, especially since she also was raising seven children. By the time the Barzmans returned to Hollywood in the 1970s, the film industry and the community around it had changed significantly, and they never managed to restart their careers, but she was never bitter, saying “I’ve been so blessed, even when I was suffering.”

Norma Levor was born in Manhattan – specifically, she liked to recall, atop the kitchen counter of her parents’ apartment on Central Park West. Her father, Samuel, was an importer, and her mother, Goldie (Levinson) Levor, was a homemaker.

She left college in 1940 to marry Claude Shannon, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later became known for his work in computational linguistics and was called the “father of information theory.”

They moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he had a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study and where she worked for the economic branch of the League of Nations.

The couple divorced in 1941, a year after her father died. Seeking a fresh start, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles.

She worked as a features writer for the Los Angeles Examiner while taking courses in screenwriting at the School for Writers, which was later added to the federal government’s list of subversive organisations. “All the progressive people I liked and who were politically active were communists,” she said.

She met Ben Barzman, another aspiring screenwriter, at a party. Ben Barzman insisted that modern movies were too complex for women to write. She pushed a lemon meringue pie in his face. They married in 1943.

Norma Barzman wrote the original stories for two films made in 1946: Never Say Goodbye, a comedy starring Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker; and The Locket, a noir thriller. In Europe, her work included another screenplay, the French-Italian comedy Finishing School (also known as Luxury Girls), but her name was kept off it until 1999.

After returning to Los Angeles, Barzman wrote a column on ageing for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a memoir. She became outspoken in her criticism of the blacklist and the role many in the industry played in it. Larry Ceplair, a historian who has written extensively about the blacklist, called her the era’s “keeper of the flame”.

In 1999 she joined some 500 other people outside the Academy Awards ceremony to protest against an honour being given to director Elia Kazan. Kazan had testified before the House committee, identifying several friends and colleagues in the industry as former communists. Barzman, who was there with her teenage grandson, carried a sign that read “Kazan Is a Fink”.

Ben Barzman died in 1989. Norma Barzman is survived by two daughters; five sons; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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